How to approach those big, long-term problems
Most of us have had to make some major decisions since the start of the pandemic. A lot of them have been in response to operational challenges; a whole other bunch have been driven by financial pressures; but as we look towards another year, some of the problems were going to have to address are of a different order of magnitude entirely.
They are problems for which the solutions aren’t straightforward, because they aren’t going to be solved with the usual box of tricks: change some processes, cut some projects, run some more fundraising campaigns, restructure some teams. The gaps between the current situation and the place we will need to get to, are simply too wide to bridge with the toolkit we would normally roll out.
Most of these bigger problems haven’t been caused by the pandemic – they’ve been building for a while: markets that are fundamentally broken; models that could never be scaled for a meaningful impact; services, systems and governance structures that were never fit for purpose; economics that haven’t been truly sustainable for years. They are the chronic challenges that Covid has brought into a rapid and painfully sharp focus.
These are increasingly the talking points in my CEO roundtables, peer learning groups, and one-to-one calls. And it is in our ability to help find resolutions for them that colleagues, peer groups, and advisors like me, demonstrate whether or not we are actually worth our salt.
Whether you’re trying to navigate one of these problems yourself, or trying to help a colleague, the most important thing to recognise is that there is almost never a perfect solution, there is no “right” answer that ticks all the boxes. What you need are options: creative ones, innovative ones, pragmatic ones, so you can boil things down to a limited set of clear, “best-available” (or least-bad) choices.
The simplest approach is this. Start with the ideal outcome – what “great” would look like, then pull out the main qualities – what it would need to be or do. Next, strip it back to the most important ones – if you could only have five, which would they be; if you could only have four, and so on. Those are your essential outcomes.
Inspiration for how you could achieve those outcomes can come from anywhere – there are hundreds of thousands of charities in the UK alone, and millions of organisations of different flavours, hues, shapes and sizes – some of them will have faced challenges that are similar, or at least could offer you a broad approach to your dilemma.
But ideas can also come from confidential conversations with other people, particularly those you trust whose perspectives and experiences are wider, or very different, to your own. This is where trusted advisors, confidential learning groups, Chatham House roundtables and so forth come in. This is where you can start to collect and organise some alternative thoughts and ideas, and start building out, or whittling down, the options you might have, and the choices you could make.
Chronic problems are often the hardest to solve, almost by definition. If they were easy, you’d have sorted them on your own, probably a long time ago. But you can find solutions, or at least responses to them, as others before you almost certainly have done.
The trick is, as with so many things, to stop trying to solve everything yourself, and instead, to start asking the right questions of the right people around you.